Ep 7: The Science of Teen Persuasion

Jake Teeny, persuasion researcher and author of the immensely popular course "The Psychology of Persuasion" explains what to do when you need to persuade your teen to do what you are asking. Use these tactics to be more influential in every parent-teen interaction.

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Full show notes

How do you get your Teens to Listen?

Is your teenager listening to you? Like, really listening?

You could be sharing your story about swimming with sharks or curing a disease and your teen would still be zoned out on their phone. And even when you do have your teen’s attention, it can seem like your teen is reluctantly enduring your words, so you will leave them alone sooner. It really gets the blood boiling!

When you speak, you hope that your teen is considering all you have to say. You have valuable life experience! Wouldn’t it be fantastic if your teen could put away the distractions and ponder your voice for two minutes?

I think parents should be able to speak inspiringly to their teens and have their voices considered. It isn’t a bad thing for parents to be persuasive and motivational because they have valuable wisdom and life experience to share. However, it is really hard to figure out how to motivate teenagers effectively.

A parent’s voice is usually the most prevalent one in a teen’s life, and teens get tired of hearing it. Just because teenagers are reluctant to listen doesn’t mean you’re going to stop speaking to them altogether. But how do we improve our conversation tactics and learn how to motivate teenagers better?

The Answer: My good friend, Jake Teeny.

In order to learn some tips on how to motivate teenagers better, I spoke with my good friend, Jake Teeny. Jake earned his PhD of Social Psychology at Ohio State University, and his research largely focused on the psychology of persuasion. He has written for notable international outlets such as Noba Psychology and Go Highbrow. He even created a free online course called The Science of Persuasion to teach research-based influence techniques. I also know from a personal level how good Jake is at persuasive speaking because in high school he beat me for class president! (I’m still not over it!)

Today we discuss how to motivate teenagers by implementing his tips for persuading teens to make good decisions without taking away their need for autonomy.

Persuasion vs Independence

Getting through to teens is hard, but Jake has some amazing, applicable knowledge for learning how to motivate teenagers better. The first thing he encouraged me to think about was teenagers’ increased need for independence. This makes sense to me. Research shows that a teenager’s desire for autonomy peaks at the age of 14. But how does this relate to persuasion?

Jake explains that every teen has a moment where the lightbulb in their head clicks on and they realize that they don’t have to listen to their parents anymore! He says that as teens begin to want to do things for themselves, parents should shift their thinking of “persuasion” to “self-persuasion.” “Persuasion” is like a request for compliance, and teens are not motivated to comply easily with their parents. By targeting “self-persuasion,” you are now trying to get the teen to convince him or herself to do whatever it is you’re asking.

Parents tend to generate the arguments that they think are the most persuasive, but that’s not always what the teen finds most persuasive. This is challenging, but understanding how to motivate teenagers means taking the time to think of something that will resonate specifically with them. Such resonators could be popularity, fashion trends, or a fear of missing out on the most recent technology. You may not necessarily agree with teens on the importance of these things, but the fact remains that these are what teens believe are important. If you can relate to the importance of these things in a teen’s life, you might have a chance at connecting with them on a deeper level.

Core Identities

If you want to know how to motivate teenagers to do something, recognize that they are only going to respond to messages that they find compelling. Jake says that to get a teen to find a message compelling, you should relate the message to one of their core identities. But what is a core identity? And how do you discern it?

Core identities are the ways we perceive ourselves, and define ourselves to others. Jake says that we often define ourselves by our likes and dislikes. He explains that you can identify core identities in your teens by listening to them and observing what they like and dislike. This shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish with careful attention because core identities are usually what teens want to relate to and talk about.

You might discover that your teen is super passionate about environmentalism, or making money, or action movies. No matter what their likes are, you will gain an understanding of what your teen finds compelling and know another way to effectively motivate them. According to Jake, if you can connect your message to what compels your teen, it’s likely they will continue to consider your input even when you’re not around.

Utilizing core identities makes learning how to motivate teenagers so much easier, however, there are still some pitfalls to be aware of.

Don’t Attack the Identity

It’s helpful to know how to leverage teens’ core identities to learn how to motivate teenagers with a compelling message, but you want to be extremely careful that you don’t attack the identity.

For example, maybe your teen loves track and field and is proud of her athleticism, but is really struggling to keep up with homework assignments. You might want to motivate your teen by saying a “good athlete” would value schoolwork more. This might not be your best move, though.

If you suggested a “good athlete” is one who does better in school, your teen might think you are attacking her core identity as a “good athlete.” She might think you are suggesting she is a “bad athlete.” It might be fair to expect a harsh rebuttal from your teen as she explains why she is an amazing athlete and that her grades have nothing to do with it. She might even double-down and do less schoolwork in order to do more track and field!

As a parent, attacking your child’s identity, even by accident, is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, it’s good to treat the things your teenager finds important with care, even if you do think their identity is something silly, like being an action movie fan. If you can approach their behavior with a warm, positive attitude, it will mean a lot to them, and they will be more willing to give you their attention.

Taking the Conversation Further

Listening to your kids and discerning their core identities is a lot of work, but it’s worth it to learn how to motivate teenagers. By framing conversations around topics teens identify with, you are increasing the likelihood that they really listen to you. You’re making the hard work of having a meaningful conversation with your teen so much easier. Jake brilliantly goes through a handful of approaches to taking such conversations further.

He has so many tools to take some pressure off of parents, and he has great examples of phrases you can say when you accidentally do threaten your teen’s identity. (Check the Parenting Scripts tab!)

Jake doesn’t want parents to feel like they have to bend their teens’ wills to steer them in the right direction. In addition to discussing how to motivate teenagers with these strategies, we also talk about:
  • The Elaboration Likelihood Model

  • “Reactance”

  • Persuading the Internal Compass

  • The Romeo and Juliet Effect (it’s real!)

  • The Power of Warm Tones & Affirmations

  • The Tenets of “Ability” and “Motivation”

  • Promotion vs. Prevention Framing

  • And why parents need to be giving teens more options!

I had such an amazing time catching up with my good friend, Jake! He has so many valuable things to say! If I wasn’t sure how to motivate teenagers before, I certainly am now. I learned so much from him in this short time, and I know you will, too.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Ep 7: The Science of Teen Persuasion
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